The Glue that Makes a Community Stick

The other day, I was out at MCU Park in Coney Island, where the Brooklyn Cyclones play.  I was chatting with the GM of the team up on the party deck.  We turned away from the game to face Brooklyn, and look down at the streetscape below.  There were a lot of empty lots and buildings in need of renovation.  For as much as Coney Island had been "cleaned up" in recent years, it's been slow to thrive and become more than just a beach destination during the summer.  

When you think about it, Coney Island could become a very cool place--the next Williamsburg if you will.  Cheaper rents could make it a great place for the creative community and there's no reason why it shouldn't become as popular a destination for out of town events the same way that Austin has.  Unfortunately, there's no hotel, conference, or venue space to allow a South by Coney Island.  It's a shame, too, because you could see people flying into JFK and never having to mess with rush hour traffic into the city to get to the event.  Plus, while you can get there by subway, it's just far enough away where people coming from Manhattan or Brooklyn wouldn't just pop in for an hour and then turn around and leave to take another meeting, like they do with conferences in the city.

But who is going to run the conference?

Who's going to be the first person to move their company?

So he asked me how you make something like that happen.  We used Dumbo as a reference and talked about how the critical mass of Two Trees buildings created a neighborhood with multiple destinations.  Stuff like that--buildings and businesses--were easy to describe.  What was harder to figure out how to do--and something no one ever really thinks about on the economic development side, is community.  

Community isn't just something you create by setting up a place to have coffee or to work.  Community is the aggregate of a web of relationships that flow naturally through a place.  It's not enough to figure out where I'm going to eat lunch--it's the who I'm going to see when I'm there.  Anyone can build a coworking space, but it's a lot harder to attract and curate a set of folks that makes me want to move into that space.  You can ask a bunch of startup companies to move to a place, but it's harder to bring together inspiring people who will build the companies of tomorrow in that place.

One of the examples I always think of is Tina Eisenberg and what she's done with the Studiomates community in Dumbo and beyond.  She started out by simply taking a space and filling it with the kind of people that inspired her.  There was no strategic goal to build venture backed startup companies, but yet at least three companies in her community got VC investment last year.  Yet, it's not so easy to just "insert a Tina" into "local community x".  Personal communities like that are not built overnight.  She didn't have the ability to curate a community until she became a person that others wanted to connect to.  You don't hire people like that--they grow organically.  

Similarly, many communities find that investors represent a lot of the glue that brings things together--like Brad Feld in Boulder or Mark Suster in LA.  I've always believed that investors make great community glue because they have a huge incentive for their local communities to thrive as places of innovation.  They also have reason to connect to a wide variety of people.  I have a reason to talk to just about anyone doing anything interesting, regardless of whether they're doing something I might fund.  That puts me in a unique position to be a connector.

Yet, you can't just hire me to be your local community VC.  I have to have at least a few years of doing this previously if I'm going to be effective--and I have to have the relationships to be able to raise a fund.  So, if you're trying to create an innovative ecosystem, if you need more investors, you had to have planned to "grow" them almost a decade before--perhaps cultivating a set of angels and helping them learn the ropes.

What's clear is that communities don't grow overnight--and while everyone knows that it takes a few years to put up enough buildings, I think building up the people that become community pillars is something that gets overlooked.

Every community needs to ask itself, "Who are the people that are going to drive this community forward in the next 10 years?" and figure out how to support them.  Are there up and coming investors that you should be introducing to endowments and institutions now so that when they want to start the first VC fund or accelerator in X place, they know where to get funding?  Who are the Meetup organizers that are going to create an exciting program of events that will take place here?   What kind of support do they need?  What conferences are going to be here that will attach outsiders and give us a national brand?  How can they be helped?  What about connections to existing businesses?  It was a happy accident when I got back into NYC VC in 2009 that I just happened to find the Ace Hotel--a space that was really conducive to meetings and founders working on projects.  I probably should have connected with the staff when I was there--but no one really thinks about doing that formally.  Existing businesses need to understand the mutual benefit of innovation happening around them.  These folks could become clients, funders, or good places to connect and work over the long term.  

Plus, these future community pillars need to be connected to each other to form organic relationships over time.  Close knit communities create the critical mass necessary to support innovation--because six programs working in silos don't work at all.

If I were building an innovation community, either via a government economic development arm or some non-profit endeavor, I would pick out an initial group of 25 people who represented the future of innovation happening around my community.  Maybe make them some kind of "innovation community fellow" representing as diverse a base as possible--investors, creatives, engineers--but all of them would have to be community minded looking to facilitate groups or institutions and work on behalf of connecting others.  You could add 5-10 people every year to that group and make sure they were supported.  A lot of what they'd need would be really simple--intros to capital, spaces to convene, or just some PR.  That would make the creation of thriving innovation communities a lot less random and less of an uphill climb for the builders who do it as a labor of love.